Hanging Up

It has been heartening to see the hard science of distracted driving getting such prominent attention, the latest of course being the New York Times coverage of the naturalistic truck study (and keep in mind that truck drivers are statistically safer than civilian drivers) by VTTI (which I look forward to reading in its entirety), followed by today’s announcement of proposed legislation for a texting-while-driving ban pegged to state highway funding. My only qualm with all the texting coverage is that it might push to the side the very real issue of cell-phone conversation while driving, which the cell-phone lobby and others would have us believe is not an issue — they of course don’t want to give up those minutes, those same minutes that preciously tick away as you sit listening to the horrible and lengthy prompts to leave messages.

But the idea of a legislative ban always brings up the issue of the difficulties of enforcement, and along those lines I have been wondering what alternatives (or supplementary tools) there might be to a legislative solution to the problem of wireless communication while driving.

A first thing to note is how much there is still learn about the process of attention while driving (not to mention attention itself!). I suspect that the rise of sensor-and-camera augmented large-scale naturalistic driving studies will be as important to the field of driver behavior as crash-tests were for the study of vehicle factors. And as physics was at the intellectual heart of that study, I think human attention is the central focus of this heretofore occluded inner world of the driver.

Paying attention while driving is a more complex notion than one might think. As driving becomes a well-practiced, automatic task, it demands less of our cognitive resources (except, of course, when something unexpected happens, then it may demand more than we expect or have available); very seldom are we devoting 100% of our care and attention to driving, in some hyper-idealized vigilant state (as, say, when I drove home from the hospital with my newborn daughter). As Peter Hancock has asked, “When we create a performance task that can, under the vast majority of conditions, be completed without the full attention of the individual involved, what happens to their residual attention that is then left untapped?” It drifts is what happens — we stare at a grain silo on the side of the road, we check the fuel gauge, we change the radio, and many of us make a call or send a text message. But there is, of course, a philosophical, perhaps ethical, distinction between an unintentionally distracted state such as “highway hypnosis” and a willfully induced, empirically demonstrated distracting external activity.

So what can be done? The obvious method would be simply not to do it, but this falls apart under various psychological mechanisms, like overconfidence and optimistic bias, the sort that are revealed in polls in which a majority of drivers say things like texting should be banned and yet in which a majority of drivers admit to having done it. Abstinence in phoning while driving, like “abstinence-only” sex education as a measure for combating teen pregnancy, is more effective in principle than reality.

A commenter in the earlier post on cell phone distraction makes an interesting point in this regard, however. As he notes, we can choose not to ourselves become enablers: “Consider that the cell phone conversation requires two people, at a minimum. I’ve taken a personal vow to not speak with a driver using a cell phone. When I speak to someone, I ask if they are driving and if the answer is yes, I ask them to call me back when they are parked, and I hang up. If someone places a call to me, I ask the same questions. I may not be able to influence lobbyists, and be part of the solution, but I certainly will not be part of the problem!”

This is an interesting point that I doubt few of us pay attention to: How is the conversation we have (as a non-driver) via phone with a driver potentially contributing to the reduced safety of that person, not to mention others around him? (Since I raised the issue of the moral imperative of not talking while driving). I have other reasons for not wanting to talk to people who are driving — namely, the conversation tends to be bad (fractured, slowed, filled with pauses, not really there). As a journalist I’ve always been able to tell when I’m speaking to someone who’s indeed driving, and then I politely ask to do a “real” interview later.

Morality is one substitute for law. Another is technology. I’ve been intrigued by a fledgling software app called ZoomSafer, which, when installed on various mobile devices, detects the user is in vehicular motion and sends back an automated reply, or allows the driver to send an automated text or email via voice. This is interesting, and laudatory in certain regards, but this is all very “carrot,” and the software is easily disabled by the user; which raises the question of why someone who wanted to text or call would enable the program to begin with.

But what is the stick? Any number of traffic safety initiatives have foundered on the well-meaning initiatives of educational campaigns, and behaviors only began to change with laws. Perhaps all it would take is a high-profile lawsuit against the manufacturer of a device, or the provider of wireless service, whose product was implicated in a fatal collision (I’m not actually sure this is legally possible, though it wouldn’t surprise if it were — from any lawyers out there I’d be curious to hear of possible precedents).

Reader Charles suggests another kind of technological fix: “Is anyone proposing regulation of cell phone companies providing a signal to a moving phone? It seems simple; cell phones communicate through towers which can detect if the phone is moving. Simply terminate the signal to a phone traveling over 20 mph or so.” I can already hear the reflexive response, which I hear with any proposal to somehow curb perceived driver freedom: But what if there’s an emergency? Try pulling over. Other potential technological approaches beckon on the horizon, with applications like the one at, which uses a “visual anchor” to ameliorate the negative consequences of the “ventriloquism effect.” To quote from the company’s (non-peer reviewed) study:

This study examined the effect on driving performance that a visual anchor acting as an auditory target produces in a subject using a cell phone while driving. The experiment was based on the hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of a cell phone conversation coupled with the necessity of “eyes on the road ahead” while driving frustrates the sound-source localization mechanism, resulting in a misallocation of finite mental resources.

This study indicates that a visual anchor used in conjunction with a cell phone while driving mitigates the cell phone’s negative impact among those tasks where the primary variant is attention and reaction time. However, the visual anchor did not mitigate the cell phone’s negative impact on situation awareness, as measured by short-term object memory, which is often considered indicative of driver performance. There is a contradiction between the measurable objective data and the participants’ subjective recall of road signs, speed limits, etc. This may mean that cognitive memory is less important to safe driving than reaction time and automatic driving behavior. It brings into question the assumption that impaired short-term.

I’m not a cognitive scientist, so I don’t know how valid any of this is. Perhaps the solution is the ultimate technological fix: To actually remove the human driver from the equation — since they don’t seem all that keen on actually driving — via fully autonomous vehicles. Maybe someday we will laugh — humans wasted all that mental energy on driving?

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 30th, 2009 at 11:30 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Traffic Culture, Traffic Laws, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “Hanging Up”

  1. Bill T. Says:

    The “no phoning while moving fast” idea seems fundamentally broken — I’m not allow to use a cell phone as a passenger?

  2. jacobus Says:

    ‘”…Simply terminate the signal to a phone traveling over 20 mph or so.” I can already hear the reflexive response, which I hear with any proposal to somehow curb perceived driver freedom….’

    Or you know, the reflexive response of people who are passengers in cars, trains, or buses…

  3. Kevin Love Says:

    I am with those who would require cell companies to automatically terminate a call from a moving source. A law is difficult to enforce, but automatic termination solves the problem 100%.

  4. Matt Says:

    I usually find Tom’s posts to be well informed and logical, but as others have pointed out, the technological “fixes” are fundamentally flawed becuase moving fast isn’t the same as driving. I can’t see any easy way to distinguish between passengers and drivers.

  5. Mark Young Says:

    I had similar thoughts to everyone above – what if you were on a bus, or a train. Or what if you were Usain Bolt? :-)

    Anyway, couple of other tidbits you might be interested in. Charles Spence of Oxford University did some research not dissimilar to the ‘visual anchor’ work you referred to – he experimented with a ‘talking windscreen’, on the basis that you localise your (visual) attention towards the source of the sound. It seemed to work.

    The other one is a quite convincing meta-analysis just published in the Journal of Safety Research by Ishigami & Klein (vol. 40, issue 2, pp. 157-164). The overriding conclusion is that hands-free conversations are really no better than handheld phones for driver distraction.

  6. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    Vis a vis the objections to the technological fixes, which are all quite valid, I wonder if anyone CAN think of a technological fix that would work? A wireless jamming device in the driver’s seat?

  7. SteveL Says:

    I would argue that the US has optimised for inattention through
    * automatic gearboxes – frees up one hand for other things (drinking coffee, shaving, making calls), and stops the driver having to pay attention to engine RPMs
    * wide roads without anything in the way. Anything that does get in the way (e.g. bicycles) get criticised for causing a problem.
    * simple navigation problems.
    In an EU city with narrow windy streets and a manual gearbox, it is that much harder to get away with being inattentive. You need to know the width of the vehicle and its position relative to the wing-mirrors of passing cars to the millimetre. You also have to navigate, although SatNav has reduced that to “do whatever the machine tells you to”

    Boston is half-way between the extremes. Narrow and windy, still driven by inattentive drivers.

  8. BB Says:

    Why don’t we require a way for our DL to register in the car. This would solve a number of issues. Say swipe your card. We need to bring back the privilege. Less congestion through less DLs.

  9. Eileen Says:

    Loved your book and have ordered a copy for my driving teacher! As a late in life learner (no license yet), this issue concerns me. I have lived abroad (Japan, Germany, Belgium) for thirty years, and although I have never driven in these countries, I’ve had a taste of good roads and good driving…and the exact opposite. The complications of roads in Brussels and big cities in Japan demanded attention…and the attitude of most German drivers also demanded ‘safe driving’. Issuing fines for cell phone use is impractical,unless there are enough patrols to seek out offenders. Raising insurance rates for individuals causing accidents (or suspending license…thus inconveniencing the culprits) comes only after the danger resulted in loss. Maybe we should go back and see how people accepted seatbelts as a law.
    I would guess that those on their cells show the same ‘novice’ tendencies as me on the road…so maybe they need to have sticker on their car indicating that (“L” for learner)…much like they have in Japan!

  10. 2fs Says:

    Aside from logistical issues (retrofitting old cars, persuading manufacturers to install devices in new cars), I’d imagine you could install a device that detected a “live” cell phone within X feet of the steering column and jammed it in that radius so long as the car is moving. To prevent the driver from leaning over into the passenger space to make a call (which, no doubt, some moron would try), perhaps this device could also kill any cellphone in the passenger space *unless* a body were in the appropriate position behind the steering wheel. So, a combination of detecting the cell phone and detecting physical presence.

    This would allow passengers to make calls while preventing the driver from doing so. Of course, this is probably way too complex to be practical…but maybe a simpler solution would be just to say: sorry, driving’s too important, so no calls in a moving vehicle, driver *or* passenger. If you need to make a call, pull over. It would seem there’d be a way to allow only 911 calls to go through, though.

  11. Rich Wilson Says:

    I hope for a day when driving on a cell phone is akin to driving drunk. People still do it, but it’s as un-cool as kicking a puppy.

    I’ve been trying to think of a good bumper sticker. “If you’re on your cell phone, don’t follow me” “Cell-phone-driving = driving drunk”. I dunno, maybe an informal contest Tom?

  12. Dave Hunt Says:

    I think the root of the problem isn’t even the cell phone usage, but the fact that we FEEL that driving is so safe.

    Porsche didn’t put cup holders in their cars until the last decade or so because they didn’t understand how someone would NOT be focused on their driving long enough to take a sip of their beverage.

    In America, with cars that can handle way more than our roads give them, we get bored. We want (and need) to keep our minds busier.

    The only people I know who turn everything off in their car while driving are the agressive drivers, or the paranoid.

  13. Aiden Says:

    I think it’s a matter of personal responsibility of a person. If you are the one driving, you must avoid texting or using a cellphone while hitting the roads. But of course if you are just a passenger in the back seat, you could text all the way. Before I purchased my Dodge car (when I was in Canada), I rode cabs/taxis most of the time and I actively used my cellular phone especially if there were important messages or calls to respond to. it would be unfair to those people who are are just merely passengers if the the automatic signal termination would be implemented.

  14. Ludvig Johansson Says:

    Well, people don’t take responsibility, and no amount of “fair” texting for passengers can make up for the fact that lives are saved. So stop being selfish.

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